Communication breakdown

Sunday, 24 April 2011

UCI

For a subject that started as a spat over the use of two-way radios in races the breakdown in communication between the UCI and the major teams is not without its irony. The teams say radios are crucial for safety and strategy, but communication between teams and the UCI is broken down.

Earlier this week the majority of top teams walked out of a meeting with the UCI. For me this was a theatrical stunt which won’t fix anything. For the team representatives no doubt it was too much to sit though a lengthy session only to find the issue most relevant to them… hardly merited a mention.

Worse, things are now speeding towards disaster. The teams, via their AIGCP group, have hired a London-based public relations company. You don’t engage an agency like this just to distribute emails, they are there to help position the AIGCP and in PR-speak to “shape the debate”. But it should be noted too that the UCI has also quietly hired a PR agency too.

But it’s not about who’s hired who. For me, 90% of the time these agencies issue wooden press releases. You’ve now doubt read a lot of them, perhaps without knowing it. When a new product is launched and someone proclaims “I’m delighted to be working with Company X… their products will give us a real competitive advantage” you can pretty sure this inane quote was drafted by a junior PR staffer. Nobody talks like this in the real world.

No, the arrival of these agencies suggests three things. First, both sides are settling in for a long war where taking public opinion is essential. Second, that money is at stake, these people don’t come cheap. Finally it could be recognition that each side has some walking and talking liabilities when it comes to the public relations game, the most obvious example is the UCI’s Pat McQuaid. A very effective communicator over a expenses-paid lunch but woeful in front of a microphone. Professional agencies won’t engage in on the record “well I won’t comment but let me just say that I think that so-and-so is a little son of a”. You get the picture.

What next?
It’s hard to say. The things which need to be done are not being done. Instead we’ve got a chaotic situation where nothing is going to plan.

What should be done?
I’ve said before that the UCI’s best option was to concede over the use of radios and to invite them into the mysterious decision-making process in Aigle… but to slam the door in the teams’ face over anything more.

You don’t need to be Gary Kasparov to grasp that allowing the use of radios would silence a lot of riders (and their twitter accounts), thus removing one large chunk of vocal criticism. Inviting the AIGCP to the table for decisions on the World Tour is good, after all the teams pay heavily for the licence. And in no time many team managers would get bored of panel meetings, council sessions and steering committees.

By ceding to some of the concessions would allow the UCI to silence a lot of the critics whilst stitching up the teams with the detail. For example the teams could attend meetings but would not have a majority of votes over the outcome, they could simply be brought into the process.

It’s assuming a lot but if done sneakily, a Machiavellian UCI could come out stronger, bringing the teams into the fold but locking them into the process. But we’re far from here.

roomservicetaco April 24, 2011 at 8:19 pm

An optimistic view, but not a likely outcome. McQuaid believes that “All international governing bodies make decisions that are independent from the participants of the sport.” (http://velonews.competitor.com/2011/04/news/uci-president-pat-mcquaid-says-talk-of-breakaway-league-fueled-by-greed_169778)

How and why he believes this is beyond me. Not sure that he realizes that fans watch live and on TV to see the riders and the race. The governing body is the least important of all the constituents to the success of the sport. Yes, rules need to be in place and need to be enforced, but who does it is of very little consequence to the fans and sponsors – watching Gilbert or Cancellara ply their trade, however, is.

lieutenantmudd April 24, 2011 at 11:23 pm

I think the UCI is going to lose this one. Badly.

The assets of professional cycling are owned by organizers (races) and owned/licensed by teams (competences to run a team; riders). What does the UCI own besides IOC connections and the rainbow jersey?

I don’t think it’s in the best interest of the sport to have a non-UCI cycling league. I think one of the great organizational strengths of cycling is that road, track, and cyclocross (among others) on all continents fall into the same general structure.

But in my opinion, the UCI has demonstrated that their primary interest is not the development of the top tier of the sport. They have other responsibilities, which is fine. But bending the interests of the top tier road cycling (or track cycling) to the interests of their other constituents is not OK.

I think the best resolution of this situation is to spin the management of anti-doping efforts and management of the WorldTour into two separate independent organizations nominally run under the UCI. Give both a charge to focus solely on their respective domains and move on.

ColoradoGoat April 24, 2011 at 11:27 pm

Look – race radios should be eliminated from the sport. Seeing the Garmin communications, basically taking away the ability of Thor and Farrar to think for themselves was in my mind, the perfect encapsulation of why they should be banned. It takes away a key component from any individual racer’s arsenal, which is their own strategic decision making and situational awareness skills during a race.

lieutenantmudd April 24, 2011 at 11:35 pm

@ColoradoGoat

I think teams should stop focusing on race radios and instead focus on governance issues. I think radios are a losing issue for them.

BUT, in context, Vaugthers’ advice to Thor and Farrar was perfectly reasonable tactical advice. The problem there wasn’t the radio. It was the structure of benefits that reward 3rd place over a valiant losing effort for 1st. Flanders’ wasn’t their race and they were making the best of it. It’s not because of radios.

To me, Andy Schleck talking on the radio underneath the flamme rouge today at L-B-L is far, far more damning. I mean, what advice does Andy really need with 120 seconds of racing left? If Andy actually needed DS direction for his strategy in the last km, radios really do need to be taken out of the sport.

Crommy April 24, 2011 at 11:54 pm

So long as the UCI keep the race organisers on their side (especially the Tour), there is nothing the teams can do. You can’t suddenly create prestigious races. If the UCI lose the race organisers though, then they don’t have any ground to argue on.

But given some of the hints Vaughters has been dropping on his twitter feed about meetings with Angelo Zomegnan (i.e. RCS Sport), Vaughters definitely seems to be trying to get race organisers on his side.

craa22uk April 25, 2011 at 11:21 am

Ggood update. You should rewrite that first para though as you basically say the same thing in both sentences.

Tim April 25, 2011 at 11:44 am

The argument most frequently used by the teams and their sports directors is the safety argument. It is precisely here where radio communication deteriorates things. In practice, most radio communication consists of instructions to the riders to stay up front. And as soon as an important climb or a narrow road passage is approaching, the number of such instructions only increases. The result is a large number of riders trying to squeeze themselves up front, even in places where there’s no room left. The result usually is an increased number of accidents, so the safety argument is a lot of crap. In my opnion, there’s more efficient methods of dealing with the riders’ safety.

bikecellar April 25, 2011 at 11:52 am

Ok, ban race radios, and when we are about it ban the DSs from the following vehicles. Then what about those fancy carbon bikes and electronic shifters? Yes let’s get rid of them as well, only steel frames and single fixed gear, say a mandatory 53/12 for everyone, that would sort the men from the boys! :)

Chris April 25, 2011 at 4:38 pm

I just wish we could get on with it. Whatever the decision is we need to move on. I don’t feel the radio vs. non radio issue is going to change the dynamic of the races that greatly. I don’t know why the UCI won’t agree to commisare to rider radio communication to satisfy the safety aspect of the teams arguments and move on.

Seriously April 25, 2011 at 6:57 pm

@ColoradoGoat
If your main issue is how P-R unfolded then you don’t want to ban teams not radios. The reason the race unfolded as it did is because of team tactics, radios had nothing to do with it. So, should we go back to the days of individual riders contesting the entire TdF with no teams, no support, no gears?

Alex April 25, 2011 at 7:46 pm

@ColoradoGoat Then notion that that removing race radios is going eliminate team tactics in cycling is completely misguided. The move by Garmin was smart, and would happen with or without radios.

One takeway from this season so far. You can have exciting racing with radios. You can have boring racing without radios.

ColoradoGoat April 26, 2011 at 12:07 am

Alex,
you are missing my point. I am not arguing against the tactical decision…but I want the riders themselves to have to think for themselves. I am fine with team tactics…but radios removes the advantage of a smart rider over those who cannot think for themselves in the heat of the race.

grolby April 26, 2011 at 12:32 am

Wanting the riders to think for themselves is nostalgia for a bygone era that never existed, except perhaps in the earliest, Heroic Era days of cycling. Cycling has always had the DS, at breakfast and in the car, telling his riders what to do and expecting them to show as much independent thought as marionette. The history of cycling is rife with tyrannical sports directors, driving their riders through fear more than inspiration. You wish to return to a period of cycling that never was.

grolby April 26, 2011 at 12:36 am

And what’s this about smart riders? Cancellara is a rider of enormous talent and class, but particularly smart? No, I’m a big fan, but honesty compels us to recognize that he has always relied on brute strength rather than tactical intelligence. We’ve seen him lose races due to his impetuousness – see Worlds, 2009. And Roubaix, 2011.

I think that the desire to ban radios comes in part from the belief that it will cause the riders we “want” to win, to win more often. I highly doubt that it would actually work that way.

ColoradoGoat April 26, 2011 at 4:19 am

@Grolby:
As to your first point, I am fine with a DS setting the team strategy during the day. Hell…I am even fine with him barking out orders when he can to his riders from the car window. But this still leaves much to the decision making of the rider, since at key, pivotal moments, often times without radios, the riders will have to fend for themselves.

As to your second point….you are making my point for me. I do not want all the advantages to go to riders with pure brute strength to win. I want to bring the pendulum back a little more to riders who use their heads. You are not refuting anything I am saying.

grolby April 26, 2011 at 4:57 pm

What have we seen this season, if not wins by riders who use their heads? Philippe Gilbert is a perfect example – strong, yes, but also a smart racer.

I think that the problem is simply the DS having too much knowledge of the state of play. I am not keen on going back to the days when team cars would be driven up alongside the peloton to bark orders. Crazy dangerous! So take away the TVs in team cars. Allow them only race radio – then we’re back to the old status quo, but without the risk of team cars amongst the riders.

ColoradoGoat April 26, 2011 at 6:02 pm

@ Grolby:

Now that is a compromise I can live with. However, tough to police that, since a small video screen could easily be smuggled into a DS’s car.

The reason this is an issue, is because DS’s enjoy the power they have. It is an ego issue with the DS’s. since their salaries and marketability as leaders of teams are reduces if races are left more to the decision making of the riders.

I would however point out that the cars riding upside the peloton was a historical practice, and unless you can cite some stats, I do not recall much in the way of significant crashes etc… as a result of this practice.

grolby April 27, 2011 at 8:22 am

An example of the danger inherent in the everyday interactions between a team car and a rider, even in the radio era: http://www.thebikebook.com/pictures2.html

Bobby Julich crashed in the same sort of situation in the 2004 Tour – he lost control while taking a bottle or something, crashed and broke his wrist. You can see the moment in the CSC documentary “Overcoming.”

The interaction of cyclists and team cars has an unavoidable element of danger to it; the fewer riders exposed at once, the better.

As for stats, who knows? It’s unlikely that a serious effort to make an estimate the incidence of accidents between team cars and racers has ever been made, or will ever be made. Similarly, with helmets, there’s not much to go on, statistically, in terms of how they have improved the safety of professional riders. Helmet rules were instigated because two very high-profile accidents that resulted in the deaths of riders. Why on earth should we wait and hope that nothing similar happens with a team car among the peloton? Why take the chance? It’s simply not worth turning out wrong about it.

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